The time is nearly upon us when many older East End residents pack up their houses and head south for the winter. To Dr. Charles Guida, a practitioner of internal medicine and gerontology since 1996, who also teaches in Stony Brook Medicine’s intern and resident program at its Southampton Hospital campus, The Star posed this question: “Is it safer to be a snowbird?”
“One thing I notice is that there’s a sweet spot between the time they retire . . . and when it becomes too difficult to travel,” Dr. Guida said. There’s nothing wrong with the “snowbird” lifestyle, “but it may get to a point when the traveling, the packing, taking the car — when it becomes too mentally overwhelming. That’s the time you have to rethink your strategy.”
Here, then, are his thoughts on wintering safely right here on the East End.
STAR: What kinds of unique safety challenges does the winter season present for residents who are aging, versus other times of the year?
DR. GUIDA: The first thing is that what I would say can apply to anybody. For the snowbird and the elderly people who stay here, one thing they don’t necessarily think of is preparing their home. Weather stripping, making sure the gutters are clean, making sure there are no repairs to do, check the heating system, cleaning the fireplaces and chimneys, having the carbon monoxide and smoke detectors updated. All those things should be done so that when you turn on the heat on, there are no issues. And I tell my patients they have no business standing on a stepstool, chair, or ladder for any reason. Even changing carbon monoxide detector batteries, that’s the kind of thing they should get someone to do.
STAR: To what degree, if any, are older people more at risk for certain illnesses or medical events during cold months?
DR. GUIDA: I think they need to prepare for the possibility of hypothermia. They have a higher chance of cardiovascular issues. If they already have medical issues, they’re more at risk for things like hypothermia or a heart attack. By nature, elderly people don’t have the physiological reserve to compensate. So they should dress in layers, cover their hands, wear scarves, and make sure their footwear is safe. They should respect the weather. If it’s too cold, too windy, too snowy, don’t venture out! That goes for shoveling the snow, too. If you’re a healthy elderly person, I can’t say don’t shovel snow, but certainly if you’re not active throughout the rest of the year, now’s not the time to test your body. Cold air constricts the blood vessels, the heart works harder. The sudden burst of energy . . . is a setup for disaster. That’s the kind of thing where if you’re not in good shape, make sure you have someone who is ready to shovel out or plow out your driveway. Make sure your house is well stocked with salt or even cat litter so you don’t take a slip and fall.
STAR: What are some signs that an older person should ask for help with a task or project that may involve strenuous activity?
DR. GUIDA: See if it’s a task that they don’t do usually — it’s not part of their everyday tasks. With things like changing a closet to the winter clothes and bringing them down from the attic or up from the basement, have someone bring up or down the clothes, but leave them their choice to make the change. Things that they’re not accustomed to doing, stressful things like climbing the stairs or handling heavy boxes, that’s when they should ask for help from family or friends.
STAR: What considerations should be taken into account when finding a balance between independently doing tasks and asking for help?
DR. GUIDA: No matter who they are, they want to feel independent. Maybe they’re being used to being in charge, and I wouldn’t take that away from them. [Younger relatives] should check in on them, make sure they have a well-stocked pantry. If the weather is going to turn bad, say, “Let’s go out together and stock up or fill up the gas tank, so you don’t have to deal with that when there’s a foot of snow on the ground.” Help them prepare before things happen, before they can’t get out. Allow them to make those decisions and do things together — that’s the way to go.
STAR: When it comes to cold-weather activities, things that they may have enjoyed in the past such as walking or making a snowman with grandchildren — what’s safe for an older person to enjoy? What precautions should be taken?
DR. GUIDA: Let’s say if you’re someone who goes for a daily walk of 30 to 40 minutes in good weather and do that on a routine basis, certainly you can continue that, but you may want to shorten the time you’re outside. As soon as you feel your fingertips and nose get cold, don’t push it. Listen to your body telling you what’s going on. Shorten the time interval you’re outside.
STAR: How can a younger person support an older friend or relative?
DR. GUIDA: Let them know you’re available — that it’s never an issue to help. You want to be helpful, and you want to be a little proactive. Show up with some items to stock the food pantry. The wrong way is to say do you need anything? Their first inclination is to say, ‘No, I don’t need anything.’ Nobody wants to put another person out. They don’t want to ask their family or friends, but it’s a bigger bother when things happen that could have been prevented. Family members should be proactive, and do it in a cheerful way. The other thing is social isolation. That’s a big problem. A visit with no expectations is always nice. . . . Just come over, take over some tea or coffee, no expectations that anything has to be prepared. Play a board game, have the grandkids come over — a short visit with some fun things to do.
STAR: What other wintertime precautions would you advise older adults to consider?
DR. GUIDA: I cannot overemphasize — though it’s become a little bit of a controversial topic — vaccinations and immunizations. I would implore people — elderly people and all patients — to strongly consider getting vaccinated. This year for patients over 65, we have a Covid vaccine, influenza vaccine, and the new RSV vaccine. People may say ‘That’s a lot of vaccines,’ but they are useful, and they are really important in keeping you out of the hospital and keeping you well. Speak to your doctor about getting your shots.
Dr. Guida’s Meeting House Lane Medical Practice office in Southampton recently welcomed two new physicians, who are accepting new patients. Appointment inquiries can be directed to 631-283-2100.